Arizona: Not your average Uganda

  • J Brooks Spector








The American southwestern state of Arizona narrowly missed being lumped together with Uganda, Nigeria and Russia, among other places as co-capitals of the homophobic world. On Wednesday, Governor Jan Brewer vetoed a bill that would have allowed any restaurant owner or shopkeeper to ban gay citizens from their premises, if serving them would have violated the proprietor’s religious precepts. The bill had passed both houses of the state’s legislature before being vetoed. What is going on out there anyway? J. BROOKS SPECTOR looks more closely at developments and the larger social context.

It seems it was a near-run thing in the end for Arizona and America. And despite it being legislation in one state that would almost inevitably have been overturned once it reached the courts, it certainly had to potential to deliver a stunning black eye to America’s reputation internationally – just as the world is focusing closely on homophobic legislation and similar actions in a number of other nations.

Yes, Arizona’s out in the west, and that solitary, fix-things-by-the-code-of-the-west, Marlboro Man, John Wayne style still resonates with many there. Arizona is one of the most reliably Republican voting states in the country, it is home to rallies worth of Tea Party supporters bearing those improbable signs “Keep your government’s hands off my Medicare”, and it has more than its fair share of fundamentalist, born-again Christians.

Over the years, it has elected people like Barry (“Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!”) Goldwater as one of its senators in Washington. But it hasn’t entirely been the stomping ground of the far right. Arizona also has elected Gabrielle Giffords as a congresswoman, Janet Napolitano as governor – and John McCain as a senator as well. And it has the Grand Canyon.

But regardless of that scenic wonder, the state’s predominately Republican Party legislature recently passed a bill that would have given business owners the absolute right to refuse service to gays and lesbians on religious grounds. (How they were going to identify such clients reliably has always been a bit vague, however.) Jan Brewer, the governor, ultimately declined to support the proposal and vetoed the bill, just as Arizona was coming under some serious, growing pressure from business leaders within the state – and numerous people beyond it – that if the measure became law it would have brought financial disaster on the state’s wobbly economy – and, as an unwanted bonus, blown its reputation completely out of the water.

As the bill reached the governor’s desk, leading Republicans like Senator John McCain, Florida Governor Rick Scott and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (and the party’s most recent presidential candidate) weighed in and announced their opposition to the legislation. They argued that the measure would have allowed people to use religion as a fig leaf for prejudice, pure and simple, to the detriment of the state.

The legislation had come forward just as Uganda had adopted some seriously punitive legislation against gays; a law that had already garnered international opprobrium. And there were repressive moves afoot in Nigeria and Russia, among other places, as well. Accordingly, giving Arizona some unexpected and unwelcome global company on the discriminatory social legislation front may have contributed to Governor Brewer’s somewhat unexpected veto as well.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry weighed in with his own interview on the bill on Wednesday, saying, “I cannot imagine how that law would withstand the scrutiny of the Supreme Court of the United States.” This was after both Kerry and President Obama had already sharply criticised the new Ugandan law.

Gov. Brewer announced her veto after she had spent a day meeting opponents and supporters of the bill, presumably trying to sort out the various political, economic and state reputational wounds that would accrue from whichever way she went. Eventually she told a news conference, “I call them like I see them, despite the cheers or the boos from the crowd… [And this legislation] does not address a specific or present concern related to religious liberty in Arizona [and it was so] broadly worded and could result in unintended and negative consequences.”

Brewer then went on to excoriate the legislature – controlled by her own party, nogal – for making its first piece of legislation to reach her desk for signature in 2014 this bill, rather than her real legislative priorities. She insisted that those were passing a budget that would help stimulate the state’s economic growth and “fixing our broken child protection system.”

Attempting to make the best of this awkward moment, Brewer noted that while some Americans obviously still harbour misgivings about same-sex marriage, even as the country was undergoing a real change in social attitudes, and that “Religious liberty is a core American and Arizona value, so is no discrimination.” Brewer added, “Our society is undergoing many dramatic changes. However, I sincerely believe that Senate Bill 1062 has the potential to create more problems than it purports to solve. It could divide Arizona in ways we cannot even imagine and nobody could ever want.” After her veto, several of the bill’s presumably embarrassed supporters stepped up to say that they now opposed it and that she was right to veto it.

The drafters of the Arizona bill had originally drawn their inspiration from a number of events in several other states where several florists, photographers and specialty bakers had been sued for refusing to work on same-sex marriages. But, in Arizona’s case, the now-vetoed bill would have permitted a much wider-ranging form of discrimination, even as it was sheltered under an ostensible religious exemption that could be invoked by obdurate, “refusenik” business owners.

A range of critics – including some of the state’s business leaders and national political figures — had argued that the Arizona bill was so broad it would have permitted a whole swathe of denials of service such as, for example, a Muslim taxi driver who declined to drive a woman who was traveling solo. That would have helped ethnic relations too.

Nonetheless, the bill’s proponents insisted, despite all the sniggers, that it had been designed to allow people to live and work by their own sincere religious beliefs. On this score, State Senator Steve Yarbrough had said, “This bill is not about allowing discrimination. This bill is about preventing discrimination against people who are clearly living out their faith.” Oh, right. Got it now.

Not surprisingly, as she was closeted away, contemplating her next move, Brewer was inundated with Facebook postings, emails and even the occasional bit of snail mail, many of them urging her to sign the bill; sending her messages like, “Don’t let them bully you, Jan. If we deny someone their religious beliefs or the right to do business with whom they choose, we truly are giving up more and more, all of us, gay or straight.” By contrast, the head of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, Glenn Hamer said, “We’re a welcoming place, but all this attention is just sending the wrong message. Everyone is watching us right now.”

Brewer’s decision to veto the bill and keep Arizona out of the same headline as Uganda was quickly embraced by Senator John McCain who told the media after her decision, “I hope that we can now move on from this controversy and assure the American people that everyone is welcome to live, work and enjoy our beautiful state of Arizona.” And bring money.

No joke, that last point. Even as Brewer was still thinking through the pros and cons of either choice, the state was already bleeding business. The Hispanic National Bar Association said it had cancelled its plans to hold its annual convention of some 2,000 lawyers in Arizona in 2015,. The group said, “It is imperative that we speak up and take immediate action in the presence of injustice.”

Ah, but there was much, much worse looming just over the horizon. The American professional football league, the NFL, which had already selected Phoenix, Arizona as the site for the 2015 Super Bowl, was already publicly exploring alternative choices in the event Brewer signed the bill. And major corporations like American Airlines, Intel and Apple had publicly chastised Arizona for the bill as well.

Arizona is actually no stranger to embarrassing public controversy as a result of its rather peculiar in-state political culture. Back in 2010, a law dealing with immigration issues gave the state’s police the right to stop and search people they suspected of being in the country illegally, with the law making it a crime for illegal immigrants to hold jobs. And that law gave the economy a kick the wrong way, just as it was trying to come back from the 2008 financial crisis and its associated recession.

Then, thinking further back, almost twenty years ago, a state referendum had declined to recognise Martin Luther King’s Birthday as a state holiday – even though it was already a national one as a result of federal action. Just as with the case this year, Arizona was set to be the site for the Super Bowl, but the football league decided to avoid the inevitable opprobrium and controversy and moved the game to Pasadena, California instead. One can only imagine how it would have gone in Arizona – and for the league and the television advertisers nationally – if they had gone ahead while the holiday – for Arizona, at least – was still up in the air.

This isn’t quite the end of the matter. Similarly styled “religious protection” bills have also been introduced in the Georgia, Idaho, Ohio, Oklahoma and South Dakota state legislatures, but Arizona’s plan was the only one that, so far, has actually been passed by a state legislature. The efforts are now stalled in Idaho and Kansas, and the equivalent bill was withdrawn in Ohio on Wednesday, amidst concerns it would have so unpleasant, unintended consequences. On Wednesday, as well, a federal judge declared Texas’ ban on gay marriage unconstitutional, but left it in place until an appeals court can rule on the case.

Meanwhile, back in Arizona, there is still a second bill that proposes to amend the state’s laws on discrimination in public places by saying those statutes would not “require a church to ecumenically recognise, facilitate or solemnise a marriage that is inconsistent with the sincerely held belief, doctrine or tenet of the church.” Round two, perhaps, coming up?

Nevertheless, despite such energetic efforts by conservative legal groups to gain passage of such a law in Arizona, and parallel efforts in other states to achieve similar results; are such efforts running with or against the tide of popular sentiment on gay rights and same sex marriage in the US? There is real data on this question, fortunately.

Public support for same-sex marriage has actually reached a new high in America. According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted a year ago, 58% of Americans now believe it should be legal for same-sex couples to get married, while only 36% say it should be illegal. Moreover, according to data from the Pew Research Center, nearly three-quarters of Americans – 72% – say legal recognition of same-sex marriage is “inevitable.” This sense of inevitability pervades some 85% of gay marriage supporters – as well as, importantly, 59% of its opponents.

According to Pew, reporting on their research last year, “The national survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted May 1-5 among 1,504 adults, finds that support for same-sex marriage continues to grow: For the first time in Pew Research Center polling, just over half (51%) of Americans favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally. Yet the issue remains divisive, with 42% saying they oppose legalising gay marriage. Opposition to gay marriage – and to societal acceptance of homosexuality more generally – is rooted in religious attitudes, such as the belief that engaging in homosexual behavior is a sin.” While Pew’s numbers are slightly different than those of the Washington Post-ABC poll, the same split yea/nay is still largely evident.

Why this shift in attitudes? That is clearly an important question and, here, the Pew researchers argue that more people today have (clearly identifiable) gay or lesbian acquaintances and this seems “associated with acceptance of homosexuality and support for gay marriage. Nearly nine-in-ten Americans (87%) personally know someone who is gay or lesbian (up from 61% in 1993). About half (49%) say a close family member or one of their closest friends is gay or lesbian. About a quarter (23%) say they know a lot of people who are gay or lesbian, and 31% know a gay or lesbian person who is raising children. The link between these experiences and attitudes about homosexuality is strong. For example, roughly two-thirds (68%) of those who know a lot of people who are gay or lesbian favor gay marriage, compared with just 32% of those who don’t know anyone.”

In fact, this near-sea change in attitude is further connected to the kinds of people who are likely to have gay acquaintances. That is to say, the young, city dwellers, women, and the less religious, among other demographic groups, are increasingly supportive. All in all, “the relationship between personal experiences and acceptance of homosexuality is a strong one.” One point that comes through strongly in all the data is that acceptance of same sex marriage rises sharply with younger age cohorts – and that such support has grown over the years.

The researchers do note that there is still significant opposition to gay marriage among some Americans, and that this view appears closely related to religious beliefs. For example, the country remains starkly split on whether homosexual behavior is a sin – with roughly 45% going each way. Not surprisingly, Pew notes, “Those who believe homosexual behavior is a sin overwhelmingly oppose gay marriage. Similarly, those who say they personally feel there is a lot of conflict between their religious beliefs and homosexuality (35% of the public) are staunchly opposed to same-sex marriage.”

Nonetheless, the Pew data shows that in sync with changes in attitudes towards same-sex marriage, other attitudes about homosexuality have also changed. For example, in a “2004 Los Angeles Times poll, most Americans (60%) said they would be upset if they had a child who told them that they were gay or lesbian; 33% said they would be very upset over this. Today, 40% say they would be upset if they learned they had a gay or lesbian child, and just 19% would be very upset.” Similarly by roughly two to one, Americans now say that “homosexuality should be accepted rather than discouraged by society”, while a decade earlier opinion was roughly evenly divided on that question. Still, those with moral objections to homosexuality mostly fall back on religious objections, rather than any other justification, for their view.

While attitudes towards the acceptance of the acceptability of homosexuality and same sex-marriage in America are obviously not universally held, they have changed dramatically in a short period of time. As a result, it is relatively easy to see why there has been a strong strain of rising disapproval towards Uganda’s recent law. This comes partially by virtue of the harshness of the Ugandan law; partially as a result of the law’s flying in the face of America’s changing attitudes regarding homosexuality; and partially in response to the fact that the law will have an impact on the bilateral campaign against Hiv/Aids and the substantial American foreign assistance to Uganda for just this effort.


[Full article-DailyMaverick]